Twenty-one years ago, at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Ricky Rudd taught Jeff Gordon a lesson.
It was Oct. 9, 1994, in what was then the Mello Yello 500, and Rudd was incensed at a “slide job” Gordon had used to pass Rudd’s No. 10 Tide Ford late in the race.
With 10 laps left, coming off Turn 4 at the 1.5-mile track, Rudd stuck the nose of his car under the bumper of Gordon’s No. 24 Chevrolet, shoved Gordon’s car the entire length of the frontstretch and mercilessly pile-drove it into the Turn 1 wall, wrecking both cars.
“I had a little difficulty passing him, so I did a big slide-job on him in the middle of (Turns) 3 and 4, and I don’t think he was happy about that,” recalled Gordon, who had been Rudd’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports in 1993, before Rudd departed to field his own team. “And he basically pushed me all the way down the straightaway and ended-up wrecking both of us by the time we got to Turn 1.
“And I showed my displeasure, and he showed his displeasure. We had to get in the ambulance together to come back to the infield care center. And we had many, many choice words. Nothing physical, but it got pretty heated.”
Last weekend, at Chicagoland Speedway, the timelines of Gordon and Rudd converged once again, in a way neither could have imagined as they shared that uncomfortable ride in the ambulance more than two decades ago.
In 1994, Rudd was 13 years into a streak of consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts that would reach a record 788 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, in 2007. Gordon had barely begun what was to become a spectacular career, having won his first two races, at Charlotte and Indianapolis, earlier that season.
But at Chicagoland, in the first race of the 2015 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Gordon equaled Rudd’s consecutive start mark. When he takes the green flag on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, he will break it.
“I never really thought about it until I retired; I didn’t think anybody was going to be stupid enough to hang around that long to beat that record,” Rudd quipped during an interview with Fox Sports’ Adam Alexander on “NASCAR Race Hub.” “No disrespect to Jeff — he’s done great, he’s still running good, he can still win races today.
“It’s not easy. And not just the injuries and stuff. Life — life goes on, with or without you, and sacrifices are made. He’s made those same sacrifices, and a lot of respect to anyone who can do that.”
Gordon’s 788 straight starts form an unbroken string dating to his debut in the final race of 1992 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. At the time, Gordon’s first start was merely a footnote in a watershed event for stock car racing.
It was the last race for seven-time champion Richard Petty. It marked the first and only championship for the late Alan Kulwicki, the last “privateer” to win a title at NASCAR’s highest level.
And, of course, it launched the career of a kid from Vallejo, California, who would win four championships by the end of the 2001 season.
When he races for the last time at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November, Gordon will have started 797 straight races over 23 years. There, the streak will end, as Gordon retires from full-time competition to join the Fox Sports broadcast team.
Rudd can point to the 1984 Daytona 500 as the race that almost stopped his streak. In his first outing for Hall of Fame owner Bud Moore, Rudd endured a brutal end-over-end wreck in the Busch Clash (now Sprint Unlimited).
Suffering from double vision and vertigo, Rudd propped his eyelids open with duct tape and raced in the 500 a week later.
Though Gordon has suffered from chronic back problems in recent years, the one event that posed the most serious threat to his streak was a hard crash at Texas Motor Speedway in 1999.
“I feel like the luckiest moment I’ve ever had… I blew a right front tire at Texas,” Gordon said. “No SAFER barrier, no HANS device (head and neck restraint), seats were not what they are today, seat belts were not what they are today. That could have been a very serious injury.
“It ended up being bruised ribs, and I was hurting, but we had a weekend off. So I was able to recover enough to go to Bristol for the next race. I had all kinds of padding and different things I put in my suit and on the seat to try to protect my ribs.
“But what I realized was that actually in the car with pressure against it through the ‘Gs’ in the corners at Bristol, it actually made it feel better. It was when the caution came out, and I had to take a breath (that) I was actually hurting. I think that was the closest I ever came (to missing a race).”
Last May at Charlotte, Gordon had back spasms that forced him out of the car during practice, but he was able to complete all 400 laps of the Coca-Cola 600.
“Luckily, I had some great doctors that got me through it,” Gordon said. “We did the injections, and I was able to make it through that race.”
Though Gordon’s quest for the Iron Man record hasn’t featured many close calls, it has earned the admiration of his peers.
“I think the one thing that is most impressive about Jeff is that he’s still able to go out and compete for wins after all these years,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. “For whatever reason — I don’t know what it is — there’s guys that just tail off at the end of their careers.
“It’s either their commitment, devotion and focus or it’s the equipment — the ability of the car and team — but he’s always been there, even all the way up to this year. He’s not had the year he’s wanted this year (no wins to date), but they’ve still been fast.”
When Gordon arrives at New Hampshire this weekend, he won’t be concentrating on the Iron Man record. His immediate concern will be the No. 24 team’s campaign to advance from the Challenger Round to the Contender Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Gordon sits squarely on the bubble, in 12th place, the last position that will earn a spot in the Chase’s second round. As he makes a run at a possible fifth championship, Gordon’s focus will be on the matters at hand.
But that doesn’t mean the Iron Man mark won’t be in the back of his mind.
“I want to break that record,” Gordon said. “I think it’s a huge accomplishment, because it’s not that easy to do. It’s easier today, I think, because the sport is safer. When I look at Ricky Rudd and what he went through to make it, that was pretty extraordinary. I can’t really compare to that.
“But I’ve been in every single race, and that is definitely a stat that I will look back on and be very proud of, when we accomplish that at New Hampshire.”